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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: tristram shandy

Epictetus’ Epigraph to Tristram Shandy

Ταρασσει τοὐϚ Ἀνϑρώπους οὐ τὰ Πράγματα, αλλα τὰ περι τῶν Πραγμάτων, Δογματα.

It  is  not  events [pragmata] themselves that  trouble  people, but  their  judgements [dogmata] about those circumstances.

Epictetus, Handbook 5

Pretty funny in context. The other half of the joke is that Laurence Sterne uses Locke’s association of ideas to explain how his mother came to associate the sound of her husband’s clock-winding with sex, providing the motor for Tristram’s life and the whole book.

The Sickest I’ve Been in Years

There’s that wonderful illness that incapacitates you from all responsibilities and just leaves you to lay in bed thinking about the most interesting things with just enough strength to pick up the books at your bedside which are conveniently piled there for you. (At an extreme, Robert Wyatt described recovering from the fall that left him paraplegic as an experience like this. I’m not so stoic, but it did produce Rock Bottom, so I can’t argue with the man.) Then there is the sickness that removes from you all your capacities one by one: movement, balance, sensation, thought, comfort, digestion, respiration. I had the latter. I don’t know if swine flu is always so bad but for me it was, and for nearly a week I was reduced to the simplest thoughts and simplest sentences breathed shallowly through my throat. Hans Castorp was a distant fantasy; if only I could be relaxing in a mountain resort having conversations with blowhards. If only I were restricted to a Parisian apartment with pages and pages of novel drafts of which my mind were acutely aware. Even the sharp recollections of the nearly-quadriplegic character of Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow seemed enviable as my skin burned with every contact with furniture, fabric, sheets, water, and air. I thought more of Lawrence Sterne and his miserable years during which he amused himself with Tristram Shandy, and all those years Martin Luther spent on the toilet while working out his theses. And above all I suppose I thought of this, since I first saw it when I was 13 years old and it made such a primal impression on me:

I don’t know what the sequence is supposed to be, but after the desperation and the fear that arises from briefly losing faith that one will ever get better and that full mental facilities will ever again be at one’s reach (and this is just from a week), there was then the anger that I had put up with anything out of disposition or laziness and frustration with myself that I hadn’t taken things more seriously when this sort of sickness was just around the corner. This is the stereotypical response, I understand, after which most people don’t change their lives one bit at all. It’s some kind of survival response.

Oulipo Postscript: Because They’re There

Having roughly delineated the areas of generative writing mechanisms and how their purposes can be at odds with traditional notions of “meaningful” work, a personal statement. I discovered the Oulipo as a teenager through a series of Martin Gardner Scientific American articles, which focused on the most mathematical and formal of their work: the long palindromes, N+7, the million zillion sonnets, the lipograms. Most of this work was not readily available; most of it wasn’t even translated. But I kept the names in mind and bought what I could.

Like Eudaemonist, I was fascinated by Perec’s La Disparition, though I didn’t have the necessary French to read it. I tried a few (unfinished, unsatisfying) exercises in the same mode. By the time I got to college it had been translated as A Void, but I found that in the intervening years with their intervening troubles, Perec’s conceits had ceased to interest me or resonate with me. The trick could not, in my mind, be justified in execution, only in theory, and the resolute attempt to bring everything in line with the motif read as quaint. The final bit of Life: A User’s Manual, that the puzzle-maker’s last piece is a “W” but the whole is the shape of an “X”, seemed trivially self-defeating rather than profound.

It applied to other works. I could admire Ulysses for its structural properties but only warm to them as far as they related to the business between Stephen and Bloom. I never did get through Tristram Shandy.

I’m still stunned by the amount of effort and care put into the arrangement of such works, and sometimes the willingness to make things so much more difficult. I don’t plan on looking down on them from the pinnacle of awesome respect for their achievements, but they still are very useful reference points.

Oulipo Tangent: Milorad Pavic

The difference between the works most closely identified with Oulipo writers (Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies, Queneau’s Exercises in Style) and those works which, while in the same exploratory spirit, don’t quite coexist in the same genre is them, like Sladek’s below, John Barth and Robert Coover’s metafictional spirals, or Tristram Shandy, is often the existence of a procedural gimmick. If the clef to a roman is an easily referenced generative device or structural ploy, the work can seem that much more mathematical and clever.

The danger is that the gimmick becomes the book. Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted with Tea is based around a crossword puzzle, but the device does not seem to justify an entire book, which is otherwise erudite and well-written. But more interesting is Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, a self-proclaimed “lexicon novel” based around Eco-like historical research and mythology. But what is the one thing it is known for, the thing that became its main marketing point? It’s the thing so significant it made it into the rec.arts.books FAQ:

12) What is the difference between the male and female editions of DICTIONARY OF THE KHAZARS by Milorad Pavic?

The differing paragraph is given in both forms. (And is it just me, or is the male version eerily reminiscent of Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths”?)

Case Histories, Alexander Kluge

The style of this book of stories is conspicuous, consisting of interrogatories, short passages under descriptive headers, and lists: lists of debts, of personality traits, of neuroses. The use of this sort of style as a way towards detachment goes back to Tristram Shandy, where it’s ironic, and you can see it in the flat descriptions of the contents of drawers in Dashiell Hammett. But Kluge’s use of it is most similar to the penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. In Joyce, it served partly as a pathos-generating device, racking up details that etched Bloom and Stephen in momentary bliss and eventual sadness. Kluge uses it in a historical sense, using an inappropriately objective voice to create dissociation and dissonance between the material and the narration.

The forced (and, like in Joyce, there are intimations of its dishonesty and bias) neutrality turns it into the voice of history more than of fiction; damning moral judgments come out in its generalizations, but seem detached from any moral judgment of the person discussed. They are mostly apolitical; many are ineffective. So the historical treatment of people who are mostly incidental is jarring. When it’s deployed against the Eichmann-like Rudolf Boulanger, who helped “measure” the brains of Jewish scientists during the war and now lives freely in Cologne, the effect is numbing. Hannah Arendt made it seem as though the war criminals she treated were mindful administrators; Kluge goes further by giving him doubts and stumbling blocks absurdly inappropriate for the historical context.

Most of the stories are subtler. The prodigal Mandorf lives an uneasy existence on Crete under German occupation and wants to “let his personality unfold,” but can’t. After some of the local residents are executed by the Germans during an evacuation, Mandorf tries to save some of the others, but fails. In the process, under the title “An appalling discovery,” he realizes “he was indifferent to everything that had happened or was happening…Mandorf’s personality lay unfolded: it contained nothing.” He is one of the more moral of Kluge’s characters, but he is unable to cope with his impotence, and his better side is relegated to footnotes. The objective narration breaks more explicitly:

Mandorf the expert
Actually Mandorf was not an expert in anything.

Kluge is very respectful of the ambiguity between Mandorf’s inherent drive towards action, which he can never fulfill, and the horrible circumstances that drive him into resignation and isolation. Mandorf is doomed in his small way, but the extent of the exacerbating impact of what happens on Crete is unknowable, Kluge implies. Mandorf himself does become numb and regrets not gaining his professorship in 1939 more than anything afterwards, but the historical facts paint him as a nearly sympathetic person, even if this is, as Kluge indicates, totally, completely irrelevant to his emotional state.

Mandorf is much more respectable than Eberhard Schincke, an intellectual and researcher who turns vehemently anti-Nazi after several years of embracing it. But his reversal only stems from a cold day sitting on a horse in the reserves, which he spins into an argument against it. His academic nature and “aversion to topicality” lead him to reject Nazism on abstruse and meaningless ideological grounds, and his career is ruined not out of any real resistance but only a deep narcissism.

It’s difficult to work arbitrariness deep into the determining factors of stories’ characters, especially without some bias informing the direction. For Celine, it was contempt that underpinned his random horrors; for Christina Stead, it was an architectural drive to classify a certain personality type’s behavior across any situation.

But Kluge is remarkably equivocal, and the lack of a definitive orientation is often in danger of deflating the collection. These figures would not stand up to novel-length treatment; even over a dozen pages each one becomes dreary, because they are either rote and predictable or subject to drastic, unpredictable changes in direction. The style saves it, because Kluge manages to produce a different result in each story by contrasting the flat, historical reportage with brief implications of how the characters see themselves. Sometimes the result is irony, sometimes horror, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes disgust. That he produces so much without varying the style at all is the core achievement of the collection.

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